The thing about labeling yourself is that as soon as you do, everyone thinks they’ve got you all figured out. I consider myself a feminist, but I’m wary of broadcasting that to everyone I meet because I’m afraid of being seen as a bra-burning feminazi who doesn’t shave her armpits. Especially when, in reality, I view myself as a Buffy-loving Miley Cyrus fan who’s still figuring out what her own brand of feminism is.
Perhaps this uncertainty is part of what attracted me to Hooters. After all, it is the Mecca for boob enthusiasts, whether they’re lonely men or rookie feminists like myself. What better place to meditate on the role women play in society than a restaurant whose essence is rooted in sex appeal?
There were practical considerations as well. It was the fall of my junior year of college and for the past two months, my roommate Natalia and I had been educating our other (male) roommate Valerio, an Italian, on the “true American experience.” Previous field trips had included apple picking at a local orchard, going to King of Prussia Mall and baking pie. Hooters was a departure from the curriculum.
At first we were just kidding around, trying to come up with the most patriotic, red-blooded, ’murican experiences imaginable. After talk of gambling in Atlantic City or going down South, I came up with the perfect plan.
“There is nothing more American than being served buffalo wings by a half-naked woman,” I declared.
“Not to mention it’ll be the perfect quarter-life crisis for your birthday,” Natalia joked — Valerio was turning 21 that week.
Natalia was the only Hooters veteran of the group, having gone once in high school with her aunt, female cousins and younger brother. It’s safe to say there were no Hooters restaurants in the affluent, mostly Jewish suburb where I grew up. I wasn’t sure what to expect. The idea that the job criteria potentially included having a D-cup unsettled me, but part of me doubted whether the whole “Hooters girl” concept was even still legal. Maybe on the scale of breast size some of the waitresses would tilt a little closer to Pamela Anderson than the average woman, but surely the business model had evolved to include at least a few women of diverse cup sizes.
The nearest Hooters was in Northeast Philadelphia, about an hour from our apartment by public transportation. On Google Maps, the restaurant was styled, “Chain grill known for wings and waitresses.” We took an eastbound train to the end of the line and completed the remainder of the journey by cab. By the time we entered the Hooters, nestled next to a Chuck E. Cheese’s in a forlorn strip mall, we had worked up an appetite.
“Take a seat wherever you like,” a man called to us from the bar. Everything was fake laminate wood, giving the impression that we were inside a plastic log cabin. At once, my initial expectations about the waitresses were dispelled. They all leaned towards the Pamela Anderson end of the scale, and it was impossible not to notice. (I later learned that Hooters has in fact been sued multiple times for employment discrimination. Their defense is based on a law about “bona fide occupational qualifications,” meaning that they claim the “essence of their business” is undermined if they are forced to hire men or curve-less women as servers.) I also hadn’t anticipated the disproportionate number of all-male tables. At the table next to us, one man was sitting alone. Valerio picked up a drink menu and scanned it.
“There’s no food!” he protested.
“They haven’t given us the full menu yet.”
On cue, our waitress approached the table. She introduced herself as Lexie.
“Can I get yous started with any drinks tonight?” She looked young, maybe 18 or 19. She was white, about 5’7”, with dark hair and pale skin, and she was wearing green glitter eye make-up and dark eye shadow. She had a plain face but an undoubtedly attractive figure — a white Hooters t-shirt cradled two large breasts, and her perky ass peeked out from under orange shorts.
A few days earlier, curious about the waitress hiring process, I typed “how to become a hooters waitress” into Google and stumbled across the handbook for Hooters employees. The cover shouts, “WE PROUDLY PRESENT THE SOON TO BE RELATIVELY FAMOUS HOOTERS® Employee Handbook.” A slogan at the bottom of the page chimes in, “HOOTERS® A fun place to work!”
If oozing sex appeal were a prerequisite to working as a Hooters waitress, I had assumed it would be an unspoken rule. I figured everyone would know what was expected of the waitresses, but there would be no explicit instructions. I was wrong.
On the first page, the manual sermonizes, “The essence of Hooters is the Hooters Girl.” It patiently elaborates, “The essence of the Hooters Concept is entertainment through female sex appeal, of which the LOOK is a key part.” The handbook goes on to stipulate a number of requirements for waitresses, including “No bizarre haircuts” and “Tongue piercing is not allowed.” In bold typeface, it dictates the uniform code: “The Hooters Girl uniform shirt must meet the Hooters Girl shorts (NO MIDRIFF IS TO SHOW); All shirts must be sized to fit, NO BAGGINESS; Only approved Orange Hooters Girl Shorts are to be worn, sized to fit, and should NOT BE SO TIGHT THAT THE BUTTOCKS SHOW.” I snorted at the last rule — it was being broken by nearly every waitress in the establishment.
Our waitress seemed to be complying with the uniform protocol, but it felt like ages before she was back to take our order. Maybe they should have something in the manual about customer service, I huffed to myself. When she returned, I noticed the tag on her chest didn’t say her name, but rather “Irwin’s Angel” (“Approved name tags are to be worn at all times on the left side of the Hooters Girl uniform. No provocative nicknames allowed.”). We ordered twenty wings and an order of shrimp to share between the three of us.
I couldn’t decide what to make of the night so far — whether being at Hooters was hypocritical, or simply unremarkable. Was I perpetuating some kind of grand patriarchal conspiracy or just getting served a meal by women who didn’t mind — and perhaps even found empowering — putting their bodies on display? I had expected a Gloria Steinem-esque revelation and instead received a plate of sub-par buffalo wings. I recalled discussing feminism with some acquaintances a few months earlier:
“Yeah, I’m one hundred percent anti-feminist,” Lindsay, a rising junior from Missouri, boasted. Joni, a junior from Rhode Island, concurred. Lindsay and Joni asserted that being a feminist means you believe men and women are equal.
“And that’s just not true,” Joni said. “There are some things men are better at and some things women are better at.”
“I think a lot of people think that,” I ventured, “but actually I think it doesn’t mean men and women are equal in every respect. It means they should be treated equally.”
“There doesn’t need to be an equal number of male and female truck drivers, but a woman should be paid just as much as a man if she performs the same job.”
Later the same day, the subject of Miley Cyrus came up. Despite my Gender Studies 101 speech earlier — or perhaps because of it — I was of the mind that Miley could stick her tongue at whomever and her foam fingers wherever she so pleased. Her mode of self-expression was no one’s business but her own.
“Miley is the most intellectual artist of our generation,” I proclaimed, only slightly tipsy. A male friend shot back.
“Are you kidding me? She’s a terrible role model for all the girls that look up to her.”
“Who cares? It’s her mouth, she can say what she wants to! Haven’t you listened to ‘We Can’t Stop’? It’s all about freedom of expression. A huge ‘Fuck you’ to the patriarchy.”
Given my unbridled love for Miley, part of me felt I should be okay with the waitresses at Hooters. They should be free to express themselves however they want to, right? But another part wasn’t convinced. It’s one thing for Miley to twerk for an adoring crowd at the VMAs, increasing the profits of her album by millions, and another — arguably more exploitative one — for a teenager from North Philly to serve wings to middle-aged men for $4.32 an hour before tips.
“Yous want any dessert?” Lexie asked, interrupting my reverie. Her face betrayed no emotion (“SMILE!!! A big smile is an important part of the Hooters Girl LOOK and your stage appearance!!!”).
“No thanks, just the check.”
Meanwhile, the man who was sitting alone at the table next to us when we arrived was still there. He was fat and had pasty skin and thinning jet-black hair that looked dyed. Late 40s, early 50s. Large wire-rimmed glasses framed his eyes. There was too much white around his pupils, and his eyebrows were arched so that he almost looked surprised. His mouth was stuck in a half-smile. After a minute, I noticed his lips were moving — he was talking to himself. The too-white eyes darted around the table as if there were other people sitting with him. He made eye contact with each one. One strawberry daiquiri after another was slurped. He ordered two slices of key lime pie and ate both with his hands. His lips smacked together as he swallowed each creamy bite. He ordered coffee.
“Carmen, do you remember me?” he asked the waitress.
“Of course!” she laughed. A few minutes later, she returned with his drink.
“Here you go, sleepy!” she teased. At the end of his meal, he put his hands together in prayer and mumbled rapidly to himself. Valerio was particularly unsettled by him.
“I thought we were going to see more horny teenage boys, not depressing men having a mid-life crisis,” he told me after we left. “Talking to the waitress might’ve been the only human contact that guy had all day.”
When Lexie arrived with our check, I was able to tear my eyes from the spectacle next to me and turn to the bill. We tipped 15 percent (it took forever to get our wings) and made our way to the door.
Despite my conflicted feelings about Hooters, as we left I was sure of one thing: like the waitresses’ uniforms, feminism isn’t black and white. On one hand, I was slightly disgusted — the man next to us, the blatant objectification of women, the premise of the restaurant as a whole (not to mention the quality of the food). On the other, I wondered whether it was my place to be making these judgments. After all, I wasn’t the one in orange shorts bringing key lime pie to lonely middle-aged men. Mulling over these questions on the subway home, I rubbed my stomach — completely stuffed but not quite satisfied.